"It's a way for them to think back and ask, 'What are the things in my life that have helped me become who I am, that have set me apart?'" she said. "Starting to be a little self-reflective can lead to essay topics."
Some experts suggest putting together a rough draft of the essay junior year and honing it later on. At the very least, the essay shouldn't be left until the last minute.
Merrill said students should begin college essays the summer before senior year. "With the pressure of looming application deadlines still months away, students have the freedom to play around with different ideas, test different angles, and solicit feedback from friends and family."
Continue your "education" on how to seek financial aid. Know the difference between need-based aid and merit-based aid, and how to access grants (free money) versus applying for loans that must be repaid.
Seek out adult mentors to see you through the application process if your guidance counselor and parents can't handle the job, said Kate Schrauth, executive director of ICouldBe.org, an online educational and career mentoring program for at-risk young people.
"So many kids are trying to do this on their own," she said. "It's a lousy proposition for many, many kids."
Welcome to the home stretch.
Montoya suggests making a master calendar to keep track of test dates, fees and deadlines, including those for retakes of the SAT or ACT and tests on Advanced Placement courses and subjects. College application and financial aid deadlines should be included. So should a list of those who plan to write recommendation letters, whom to ask for transcripts and when they're due.
Now's the time to dig into the essay and begin work on applications, including the FAFSA form and scholarships. Let your parents handle the easy stuff like filling in names, addresses and the like while you concentrate on the essay and other more personal touches.
Many schools use the "common application" but some have their own systems. Regardless, most are filed online.
It's also the time to determine whether you'll seek "early decision" at a specific school, meaning you're committed to accept if you get in. Early decision and early action, which is nonbinding but states a strong preference, allow you to apply earlier and hear back early while also applying to other schools.
Don't forget to request a final transcript at the end of senior year.
And don't think senior year is a time to slack off. "Once the applications have been submitted, avoid senioritis," consultant Katherine Cohen said. "Senior year grades count!"
If a "gap year" is in your future, make sure you understand the deferred enrollment policies of the schools where you're applying.
"Use your senior year to refine your search and arrive at a decision," said Edith Waldstein, vice president for enrollment management at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.
"What questions remain unanswered? Do you need to go back to campus again to answer them? Use your gut, your heart and your head to know where you will feel at home, where you will be successful academically," she said.
Leanne Italie can be reached at: http://twitter.com/litalie
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